TRAVERSE CITY — Continued upheaval atop Grand Traverse County's government could pave the way for lively election year.
Local politicos are abuzz with chatter about potential 2018 election challenges against the county's seven commissioners. The recent, sudden resignation of Administrator Vicki Uppal — who became the latest in a yearslong carousel of county leadership departures — added more fuel to the rumors.
At least one commissioner won't run for re-election and county Democrats plan their most significant election push in years for seats on the traditionally Republican-majority board. Grand Traverse County GOP Chairman John Roth said he also has heard incumbents might face challenges from fellow Republicans.
"Absolutely no names at this time, just chatter,” Roth said.
But talk is cheap. Elections aren't.
Not one commissioner candidate, incumbent or otherwise, has filed for the upcoming Aug. 7 primary, said Grand Traverse County Clerk Bonnie Scheele. She said filings are a little later than usual, especially given the talk about a competitive election season.
Major party county commissioner candidates still have until April 24 to file for the primary.
Chris Cracchiolo, chairman for Grand Traverse Democrats, said party members hope to put up a full slate of commissioner candidates for the first time in years. He declined to disclose potential candidates' names, but said several people in each of the county's seven districts are "seriously" considering filing.
“What we’ve done this year is encouraging people to look at it,” he said.
Change is guaranteed for one commission seat.
Incumbent Commissioner Bob Johnson, a Republican who represents Kingsley-area residents in District 7, said he doesn't plan to run for re-election. He said the position became too time consuming for him to be truly effective.
"I hope they get somebody who doesn’t move backwards in the county," he said of his district.
Another commissioner isn't sure about his future.
The commission's longest-serving member — Addison "Sonny" Wheelock Jr., a Republican who represents Long Lake-area residents in District 4 — acknowledged the last few years on the board haven't been a lot of "fun." He said he needs to talk to his wife about whether to run again.
Both are reaching a point in life where they'd like to do more than the heavy schedule of commission meetings might allow, he said.
"We’re going to have a conversation about it before I commit one way or the other,” Wheelock said.
Dan Lathrop, a Republican who represents Old Mission Peninsula and part of Traverse City for District 1, is certain he'll run again. His Republican colleagues Carol Crawford, who is the board's chairwoman, Ron Clous and Cheryl Gore Follette didn't return calls for comment.
Those board members all may be Republicans, but they sit on opposite sides of a political divide on the board.
Roth called it a debate over the "size and scope" of county government.
Clous, Johnson and Lathrop all backed measures in recent years to cut costs and grapple with a $50-plus million pension debt. Crawford, Gore Follette and Wheelock recently pushed back against such measures and strongly backed Uppal's efforts to refocus on county employees.
The disagreement spawned discord among commissioners and arguably fueled years of turnover in the county's unelected leadership posts.
"Things have not gone as well as the county would like, obviously," Roth said.
Turmoil also could scare candidates away. Former Commissioner Jason Gillman, when asked if he was considering running for the board again, laughed and said he has no intention of wading back into the county.
"It’s a disaster," he said.
Roth said the debate hasn't been as "civil" as he likes, but that different opinions ultimately are a good thing. He said the party won't take stances in any competitive primaries, which likely will come down to a referendum on the county's direction.
Tom Mair, the board's sole member who isn't a Republican, could face the toughest race. He's a Green Party member and both Democrats and Republicans intend to try to pick up his District 2 seat representing Traverse City.
“Our mission is to get Democrats elected,” Cracchiolo said. “Not Democrats and similar people.”
Cracchiolo did leave the door open for Mair to join the Democrats, who he said are concerned with the pension debt and favor measures to protect workers.
Mair said he'll run again, but as a minor party candidate he won't have to file for a primary. He still intends on campaigning all this year.
"I am definitely going to run and I’m definitely going to run as Green,” Mair said.